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The Gothenburg One
At the EU Summit at Gothenburg 14-16 June 2001, Paul Robinson
was pulled from the crowd, beaten, arrested, charged and sentenced
to one year for 'violent riot'. He tells his story.
Part of me still smiles at the absurdity of it all - the moments
of pure comedy, the initial rage and anger replaced, quite naturally,
with exasperation and a grim determination; the other political
prisoners and the fearless good will and grace with which we took
to our task, sharing, along with phone cards and manic riot memories,
an unspoken, instinctive solidarity and fierce loyalty; the quiet
friendships and inspired letters (the way the word still managed
to get through); the bad English lessons given almost daily across
the dinner table along with arguments over the political nature
of sci-fi(!), tales of revolutionary activity, football teams supported
and universal contempt for all that the Swedish state could throw
at us... for a time it was some other kind of existence, dull and
distracted, strange and unremarkable, but for all the distance and
isolation and time lost, the eight months spent in a foreign prison
fills me, even now, with nothing more than an overwhelming sense
of the absurd.
For those who went to Gothenburg for the EU demonstrations in the
summer of 2001, and watched with horror and disbelief as riot police
shot indiscriminately into the crowd almost killing 3 people, it
was the starting point of something that would lead, almost inevitably,
to the transparent state brutality at Genoa. But for me, around
10.20pm on the evening of Friday June 15th, it was the
beginning of a very different journey.
The morning of the 15th was one of the of the most incredible
scenes I've ever witnessed - the streets of Gothenburg erupting
in spontaneous anger and outrage, activists from all over Europe
united in defiance, inspired and unapologetic, attacking wholeheartedly
and with absolute joy the might and amoury of the Swedish state.
It was a truly magnificent. Later that evening, when it kicked off
again, defending ourselves once more against constant police charges
the outcome turned out to be very, very different. In a lull in
the confrontation I was grabbed by four riot police, dragged behind
police lines and beaten with such force that I had to be prescribed
painkillers by the prison doctor for two months after. Having been
arrested, thrown in a cell and charged with 'violent riot' I spent
the next month in solitary confinement up until my first trial.
I saw or spoke to no other person (apart! from my solicitor and
the British Consul - who turned out to be best friends with the
chief of police!), spent 24 hours locked in my cell, was escorted
to and from the toilets/showers, and offered nothing in the way
of explanation or information. It was going to be a long, slow summer.
Both my trials turned out to be mundane in their predictability
and outcome. One riot cop accused me of being a terrorist (this
was on Sept 12th - the day after the twin towers attack!),
and later freely admitted to shooting at people as they ran away
because he 'feared for his safety'. A prosecutor demanded I should
be convicted anyway simply because of the clothes I was wearing!
Due to the nature of political show trials the verdict was never
really in doubt, what surprised everyone, including the prison staff,
was the severity of the sentence.
When I was finally released out of solitary and the restrictions
lifted the mail started flooding in. Letters from all manner of
people, from all over of the world. Almost on a daily basis guards
would come in with a huge bundle of letters and parcels and incredulous
looks on their faces 'who the fuck are you, why are all these people
writing to you'. One even asked how famous I was back in the UK.
The level of solidarity and support, which to be honest even amazed
me, was completely lost on them. All restrictions lifted meant I
could eat meals and socialise with the other prisoners. Right from
the start me and the other three politicals convicted of rioting
("the stone-throwers") formed ourselves into a solid little
group. Jesse the autonomist from Berlin - thoughtful, sincere, devouring
political ideas with an almost obsessive intensity. The two of us
would spend Sunday afternoons in each other's cells discussing tactics,
theory, history, he arrived in Gothenburg replete with full body
armour that would shame the most well-equipped police force. The
evidence against me barely covered two pages; the evidence against
Jesse amounted to a small volume.
Sebastian, a nineteen year old from southern Germany, was one of
the unfortunate ones who got shot. TV cameras showed him struggling
into court on crutches, barely able to walk because of his injuries,
next day he was bouncing around the exercise yard like a two-year-old.
And Gigi, a middle-aged Italian socialist living in Norway. Out
of all of us Gigi was the one who genuinely shouldn't have been
there. A small, slight, mild-mannered, incredibly quiet man with
various physical ailments, it served absolutely no purpose for him
to be imprisoned except to allow the Swedish state to show the rest
of Europe how successfully it was dealing with these 'violent thugs'.
His detention would remain, through our time together, a source
of unspoken resentment we all felt. We secured our own table at
mealtimes (our own miniature EU of dodgy radicals) and at one point
I became the elder statesman of the remand centre finding myself
in the dubious position of being the longest serving remand prisoner
ever. This afforded me no particular privileges other than polite
nods and general all round acknowledgement and the oddity of hearing
everyone saying 'cheers' and 'alright' to each other at mealtimes.
Everybody spoke some degree of English and because remand prisoners
were mostly foreign nationals it was the universal language most
commonly adopted. Made my life a hell of a lot easier.
The remand centre was essentially the eighth floor of the police
station (view from my cell window: giant Volvo factory) and like
Gothenburg itself clean, modern and practical. The 'exercise yard'
was an enclosed concrete cage on the roof so the only time I set
foot on solid ground in the six months I was there was my two days
in court. Life in prison is about two things: conformity and routine.
It's designed not to disable the natural anger, instinct and imagination
of those imprisoned, but simply dull them into indifference. Those
who survive best in prison are those who can overcome their own
boredom, become bigger than the futility that surrounds them. Day
to day life, then, was not one of particular hardship or despair
but of general tedium and frustration and finding ways to keep your
mind alert and occupied, mentally fresh. I asked for books to be
sent from the UK and the response was phenomenal! By the time I
left for prison at Karlskoga I had accumulated over 93 books, plus
pamphlets and journals, pissing off the person who had to count
every personal item prisoners had. They'd never seen anything like
it, I had more books than the prison library, most were given to
the Solidarity Group in Gothenburg who were not only unconditional
in their support but were also wonderful, generous people as well.
And if books (and tapes) were a godsend then letters were pure emotional
sunlight, an absolute necessity. They acted as a barrier, a source
of comfort and sense of pride. It's difficult to describe or explain
or convey just how much they meant but every single person who wrote
to me while I was inside will forever occupy a tiny part of my soul.
As Carole Maso would say, the dark was not so dark.
By the time I got to Karlskoga, a tiny, quiet prison stuck in the
middle of the Swedish countryside to serve the last two months of
my sentence, I was a fully accepted member of the criminal fraternity.
Prisoners there knew exactly who I was and what I was in for. I
was afforded a great deal of respect, which took a while to get
used to. The armed robbers and gang members were genuinely impressed
with my stone throwing abilities and general lack of fear in the
face of oncoming riot police. But despite the greater freedom and
distractions, it just wasn't the same anymore - I was now just killing
time, counting down the days and keeping myself to myself. The other
stone-throwers had been moved to other prisons and somehow the fire
and focus had shifted from retaining your sense of self to thoughts
of home and the London I'd left behind.
As an experience, yes it was unique and no it's not one I'd like
to go through again, liberty is not to be taken so lightly or traded
so easily. Here is what I am: working class, a revolutionary, anarchist,
troublemaker, ex-criminal - all of which I treasure with equal warmth
and determination, all of which cannot be taken from me.
Of the 53 arrested, some 40 received sentences on the charge of
'violent riot'. While Paul served eight months and is now out, others
- including others mentioned in this article - got longer sentences
and are still inside in Sweden. To offer support to these prisoners
contact: Gothenburg Solidaritygroup GBG, c/o Syndikalistiskt Forum,
Box 7267, 402 35 Gothenburg, Sweden. email@example.com
To follow the progress of the Gothenburg arrestees after the summit
see 'Inside SchNEWS' - backpage on issues 318, 322, 326, 329, 334,